Skip to content
Real Estate
Link copied to clipboard

Broad Street’s iconic 150-year-old Masonic Temple is not ‘a secret, forbidden place’

The temple attracts about 11,000 visitors and hosts about 125 weddings, corporate gatherings, and other non-Masonic events annually.

Hundreds of stone, brick, tile, and wood artisans, using 16,000 blocks of New England granite, built Philadelphia's Romanesque Masonic Temple. It opened in 1873.
Hundreds of stone, brick, tile, and wood artisans, using 16,000 blocks of New England granite, built Philadelphia's Romanesque Masonic Temple. It opened in 1873.Read moreDavid Maialetti / Staff Photographer

The Freemasons expected their five-year effort to construct a Pennsylvania headquarters — employing hundreds of stone, brick, tile, and wood artisans and using 16,000 blocks of New England granite — would yield an edifice to forever command a place in Philadelphia’s growing skyline.

But by the time the Masonic Temple opened in 1873 at the corner of Broad and Filbert Streets, construction had begun across the street on City Hall, and that ornate building has dominated Center Square ever since.

“The Masons thought they were building the biggest, grandest monument on the square,” said Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. “But the Masonic Temple is still an impressive structure.”

This year’s 150th birthday of the landmark in Center City and in the world of Freemasonry has Masons like Leonard Altieri focusing on the future.

“We need to make sure this building and our fraternity are here for another 150 years,” said Altieri, a board member of the Masonic Library and Museum of Pennsylvania, the temple’s nonprofit steward.

Designed by architect James Hamilton Windrim and costing $1.6 million (about $40 million in today’s dollars), the temple is a showcase of Masonic culture and history. It was meant to be inspirational — an expression of a centuries-old organization’s commitment to charity and community service.

Seven enormous and meticulously maintained meeting halls, each with a distinctive theme such as Egyptian, Renaissance, and Gothic, were designed by George Herzog, who, like Windrim, was a Mason. These spaces are regularly used for Masonic gatherings as well by visitors who snap selfies against opulent backdrops of woodwork, sculpture, and stained glass.

The five-story, 97,000-square-foot Romanesque-style structure at 1 N. Broad St. was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

“The Masonic Temple isn’t something you dust off and take a look at,” library and museum director Michael G. Comfort said. “It’s a meeting hall, an event venue, and an educational facility with books, artifacts, documents, and artwork.

“It’s not a secret, forbidden place. We’ve been open to the public for 150 years.”

The temple attracts about 11,000 visitors and hosts about 125 weddings, corporate gatherings, and other non-Masonic events annually. It also is home to the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, the parent of 348 local lodges with a total membership of about 75,000 statewide.

A storied history and contemporary challenges

Often described as the oldest known fraternal organization in the Western world, Freemasonry is believed by some to have evolved from or been inspired by craft guilds and mutual aid groups among stonemasons and cathedral-builders in medieval Europe.

“The extent of that link is still being debated,” veteran tour guide John Minott told a group of visitors on May 17. “But certainly much of what we do reflect those traditions,” he said.

The development of distinctive Masonic practices involving symbols, rituals, hierarchies, aprons, and other ceremonial items made some outsiders suspicious in 19th century America. But the growth of U.S. membership, which peaked at 4.1 million in 1959, the connection with the Shriners organization and its children’s hospital network, as well as presidents, athletes, entertainers, and other celebrities in the fraternity, helped anchor Freemasonry in the mainstream.

Nevertheless, “there are still preconceptions about us being anti-this and anti-that, which are complete nonsense,” said Altieri, who identifies as Catholic. “We don’t care about your socioeconomic status, race, religion, or ethnicity.”

To be considered for membership in this private organization, a candidate must be male, 18, and believe in the existence of a supreme being of some sort. Women and men are welcome to seek membership in the Order of the Eastern Star, which is what Masons call an “appendant” organization.

As has been true in recent decades among many fraternal and service organizations, Masonic membership has declined nationwide. “People just don’t want to join things anymore,” said Comfort, a former journalist and longtime Mason.

Yet younger men like Altieri, a 34-year-old lawyer in Center City, are joining in what Masonic officials describe as substantial numbers.

To meet the challenges of attracting new members, “we just need to tell our story,” he said. “We need to tell them how members help each other and help the community.”

For now, local lodges in Pennsylvania, which once numbered more than 800, continue to merge.

“Material from merged lodges — minutes, ledgers, aprons, commemorative items, anything that gave the lodge an identity, end up at the Grand Lodge,” said Michael Laskowski, who since 2020 has served as archivist of the library and museum. Before that, the position had been vacant for at least a decade.

“I’ve cleaned and preserved over 1,000 Masonic aprons dating from the 1700s to the present,” he said. “Aprons are cool. But I worry most about the condition of documents, so I do my best to clean and preserve them. Because without the documents, masonry’s past would disappear.”

A different origin story with a brotherly connection

The Prince Hall Masonic organization was officially founded in 1787 after a group of 14 free Black men led by a prominent and formerly enslaved Bostonian named Prince Hall were granted a charter by a Grand Lodge in Great Britain.

Hall went on to help Philadelphia clergymen Absalom Jones and Richard Allen establish Pennsylvania’s first chartered Masonic lodge for men of color in 1797. The Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Pa. is on the 4000 block of North Broad Street; the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission installed a marker there in 1990.

“We were here from the beginning, and we’re still here,” said Felix Gardenhire, a longtime Mason whose title is Most Worshipful Grand Historian of the Grand Lodge. He said he was speaking at the request of Paul Anthony Hibner, Most Worshipful Grand Master of the lodge.

“Prince Hall Masonry has about 400,000 members worldwide, and we have 3,800 members in 84 lodges statewide,” said Gardenhire.

The Grand Lodge uptown and the Masonic Temple downtown “knew of each other and were equal, but separated” until 1983, he said. The respective leaders began cooperating in local youth programs as well as in support of the summer camp at the Masonic Children’s Home of Pennsylvania in Elizabethtown, Lancaster County, “and we’ve been recognizing each other ever since.”

Said Comfort: “We’re both Masonic organizations. We carry Prince Hall [goods] in our temple store, and their members come down here and hold sessions. We recognize each other as Masons.”

Going forward

The exterior of the temple was restored in 2008 at a cost between $8 million and $10 million, and in 2016, the event space, ONE North Broad, opened. The use of a simple sidewalk sign seems to be attracting passersby, including patrons of the nearby Pennsylvania Convention Center.

“We get a good number of international visitors,” said Minott, the tour guide.

“People are looking for meaning, and I believe we have that here,” said Michael McKee, the library and museum’s executive director. “This grand edifice pays respects to different cultures and reflects the universality of our fraternity.”

One of Altieri’s favorite things about the building are the thumbprints of the stone and brick masons who helped build it a century and a half ago. They’re incorporated into a decorative border along the walls of a foyer on the second floor.

“When masons built things,” he said, “they would leave their mark.”

To celebrate the anniversary, the Masonic Temple will offer free guided tours on the Sunday, June 4, every 20 minutes from 9:30 a.m. to 10:50 a.m. and again from 1 p.m. to 3:20 p.m. The Temple will be rededicated during a public ceremony scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday, June 24. Free guided tours will be available all day as part of the Wawa Welcome America Festival. Check for more information.